Review: Neal Stephenson’s “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell”

by Miles Raymer


Like Swiss Army Knives, Neal Stephenson’s novels attempt to imbue a singular instrument with a wide range of utility. These attempts have produced both elegant masterpieces and convoluted kluges, but on the whole I think Stephenson’s recent work has solidified his position as one of his generation’s most ambitious and accomplished storytellers.

Fall; or Dodge in Hell is as much a worthy successor to Reamde as it is a departure. While Reamde is an exemplary technothriller, Fall is better understood as “science fantasy”––a genre-defying adventure from which patient and forgiving readers can draw deep satisfaction. The novel is a heady synthesis of seemingly-at-odds narrative frameworks that carve out a mutually-beneficial existence within a central conceit of the digital afterlife. It’s also steeped in lore that will delight completionists of the Stephenson canon.

Stephenson’s voice, retaining its artful balance between sophistication and readability, treats us to unhurried musings on the nature of consciousness, the ethical and technical consequences of mind-uploading, the dangers of increasingly-insular information bubbles, how history becomes legend, the idiocy of religious dogmatism, and so much more. We even get to tromp through a near-future, post-sanity pocket of the USA called “Ameristan,” which is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying.

Although Fall overfloweth with intellectual trappings, the tale is driven by the combination of a question and an assertion. The question is this: If a digitized human mind was given the chance to create a new reality from scratch, would it simply revisit the stories and sins of humanity’s past, or would it escape those confines and generate a better––or even a perfect––world? This inquiry sends Stephenson sailing through all manner of Biblical and mythological waters, mixing and matching tropes from various traditions even as he tries to concoct something new.

The assertion is this: No matter how weird things get, conscious minds derived from human bodies will always retain traces of the eusocial wiring that allowed us to transition from a rather unremarkable ape into Earth’s most dominant animal. Future generations, even fully digital ones, will still soar with happiness and descend into misery. Pain and suffering will be impossible to eliminate, but the same will be true of imagination and love.

Rating: 10/10